Did the Supreme Court's 2009 BNSF Decision Change CERCLA Cost-Recovery Practice?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. v. United States, 129 S. Ct. 1870 (2009), examined two unsettled areas of CERCLA: (1) the proof necessary to establish whether a PRP has “arranged for the disposal or treatment… of hazardous substances…”; and (2) CERCLA apportionment, i.e., whether a PRP is jointly and severally liable for an entire site, or rather only severally liable for a portion of the site. 

In an article on Lexology titled, “Four Years Later: How Has BNSF Changed CERCLA Practice?”, posted on November 20, 2012, Anthony G. Hopp and Colin O’Donovan of Edwards Wildman and Paul S. Kline of Three Rivers Management, Inc., explore the ramifications of the BNSF decision.

In summary, the authors conclude that the Supreme Court’s decision has made it more difficult to establish “arranger” liability by tightening the proof requirements. At the same time, however, most trial courts in the post-BNSF era have failed to embrace that portion of the decision dealing with “divisibility.” This article, which provides an excellent survey of CERCLA jurisprudence, is required reading for lawyers involved in cost recovery litigation. 

The BNSF facts are straightforward. B&B operated an agricultural chemical distribution business that purchased pesticides and other chemicals from Shell Oil Company. Shell’s products arrived in tanker trucks and were transferred to storage facilities. Leaks and spills were apparently “common place” during B&B’s handling and transferring of Shell’s products. B&B eventually became insolvent and the Government sought cleanup costs from Shell as an “arranger” under § 9607(a)(3) of CERCLA. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Shell was liable as an “arranger.” 

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that a PRP is an arranger only when it takes intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance. The Court found that “Shell’s mere knowledge that spills and leaks continued to occur is insufficient grounds for concluding that Shell ‘arranged for… disposal…’.” and that the evidence at trial did not support the inference that Shell intended such spills. In so holding, the Court effectively overruled twenty years of “arranger” jurisprudence, which had created a much more liberal standard for establishing liability.  Therefore, defendants that sell useful products and/or have no role in the actual spill are more likely to find BNSF helpful in avoiding CERCLA liability.

The second half of the BNSF decision was devoted to apportionment. As the authors observe, apportionment is different from allocation in that apportionment deals with whether a defendant is jointly and severally liable for an entire site, or rather only severally liable for a portion of the site. Allocation, by contrast, deals with how courts calculate a defendant’s share of liability after it has been determined that the defendant is, in fact, jointly and severally liable. 

In Yankee Gas Servs. Co. v. UGI Utils., Inc., No. 10-cv-580, 2012 WL 1067644 (D.Conn. March 30, 2012), the district court analogized the distinction between apportioning and allocating costs to several guests splitting a dinner check. “To apportion is to request separate checks, with each party paying only for its own meal. To allocate is to take an unitemized bill and ask everyone to pay what is fair.” 

But does the Yankee Gas court’s analysis blur the line between apportionment and allocation? Yankee Gas suggests that § 107 defendants may be able to reduce their overall exposure by taking certain costs off the table – those which a PRP can demonstrate it did not cause. Following the court’s analogy, if the guests each ordered their own entrees and a few bottles of wine, everyone would pay for their own entrees and equitably split the wine, with those guests who did not drink paying only for their entrées. Yankee Gas, therefore, suggests that there may be some interplay between apportionment and allocation.  

This debate is far from being merely academic. Only by demonstrating divisibility of harm is a cost recovery defendant able to defend against a joint and several liability finding. Many CERCLA courts have acknowledged that the universal starting point for the divisibility of harm analyses in CERCLA cases is §433(A) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. But post-BNSF, the Restatement (Second) of Torts takes on new significance in the divisibility determination.  Thus, trial courts are empowered to look beyond CERCLA case law to other federal decisions interpreting Section 433(A) to determine what showing is required to establish divisibility. 

 Inasmuch as the Supreme Court has clarified the law with regard to allocation, the Edwards Wildman authors ask why not a single post-BNSF trial court has accepted this defense?  Shortly after the issuance of BNSF, it was widely predicted that "divisibility" would emerge as the new frontier in CERCLA litigation.  However, this has not yet occurred.  As difficult as establishing a “divisibility” defense remains in the courts, the article provides excellent strategies for attempting to establish the defense.

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Jerry George - November 28, 2012 3:10 PM

I suspect two things are at work. If a case has very good facts for divisibility, the govt is likely to recognize that and settle it out to avoid establishing what it would consider bad precedent. In addition, the question of divisibilty is left to the discretion of the trial court, and many judges are reluctant to let someone go if the result is that the public will have to pay for all or most of a cleanup. So where a party has significant liability even if not all or most of the responsibility, a court is likely to deny a divisibility argument.

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